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Duncan Sheik enters the 'Whisper House'

The new musical from the 'Spring Awakening' composer is a ghostly affair. It opens Thursday at the Old Globe in San Diego.

January 17, 2010|By John Horn
  • Lt. Rando (Kevin Hoffman) breaks into dance.
Lt. Rando (Kevin Hoffman) breaks into dance. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Diego — Duncan Sheik is a skeptic of the supernatural -- "I completely don't believe in ghosts," the singer-songwriter says. Yet if his new musical “Whisper House” is to succeed in its world premiere Thursday at the Old Globe Theatre, audiences -- not to mention some of the musical's characters -- will need to have faith in things that go bump in the night.

The musical unfolds in distinct but concurrent realms: the living (five inhabitants of a coastal Maine town) and the dead (two singing ghosts, and their seven-piece backup band). And there are three separate "Whisper House" time periods: The ghosts last drew breath in the early 20th century, the people in Maine are living in the 1940s, and the musicians could have been playing a gig last night at Club Nokia. If the show comes together, none of that should matter.

Recent history stands to benefit "Whisper House." "Spring Awakening," the 2006 theatrical love child of Frank Wedekind's late 19th century coming-of-age play and Sheik's modern ballads, not only swept the Tonys (eight wins, including best musical) but also proved that the sum of a classic text and contemporary melodies can actually be much greater than its outwardly dissonant parts.

"Whisper House" loosely follows that mash-up model, yet with a novel twist: The five "Whisper House" protagonists don't break into song. Instead, the new musical's choral complement is delivered by rock-and-rolling ghosts, who wander in and out of the action like ethereal intruders.

"The question now is how is this going to read?" Sheik says between rehearsals in San Diego. "How funny is or isn't it going to be? That's a total mystery to me. I just hope it's going to work."

What grows from fear

The new production, with music and lyrics by Sheik and a book and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow, may unfold during World War II but owes its thematic inspiration to modern conflict and the paranoia it can incite. When the creative team assembled for the show's first read-through in mid-December, Jarrow stood before the cast and crew to say he saw "Whisper House" as being as much about orange threat-level alerts as anything else.

"I first started writing this in the heat of the Iraq war -- that fear is something that guides a lot of life, that there is all this stuff telling us to be afraid," said Jarrow, whose playwriting credits include "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant" and "Armless." "How do you process fear and not let it control your life? That's one of the biggest questions of modern living."

Modern living isn't intrinsic to "Whisper House," as the story unfolds in early 1942. Christopher (Eric Brent Zutty) is an 11-year-old boy whose pilot father was killed by the Japanese; his mother, devastated by grief, suffers a nervous breakdown. Christopher is accordingly dispatched to a Maine lighthouse run by his spinster aunt, Lilly ( Mare Winningham).

Lilly is assisted in her coastal endeavors by Yasuhiro (Arthur Acuña), a Japanese American of whom Christopher immediately becomes suspicious. Christopher's anxiety grows stronger as the show progresses, and he sees signs of treachery in what might be benign acts.

At the same time, Lilly reconsiders where her personal loyalties lie: to her cosseted, emotionally protected life or to those people around her who need (like a lighthouse, put another way) a beacon of guidance and protection.

As the threat of U-boat attacks intrudes on the ordinary isolation of the "Whisper House" lighthouse, so, too, do the show's ghosts. The shadowy musicians -- the wraithlike remains of a band whose steamer was dashed on nearby rocks in 1912 -- are led by two vocalists (David Poe and Holly Brook) who not only offer commentary on the on-stage action but also, like contemporary sirens belting out pop songs, try to lure the lighthouse's inhabitants to their own personal shipwrecks -- even suicide.

As the musical's opening song, the moody ballad "Better off Dead," has it:

Release your heavy heart

Rest your weary head

When all the world's at war

It's better to be dead

"Whisper House" presents unconventional staging on a number of levels. In "Spring Awakening," the songs by Sheik and Steven Sater served a different narrative purpose (articulating the characters' inner lives) and were performed by the principal cast; as with most musicals, the songs gave way to dialogue (and vice versa) about every five minutes.

In "Whisper House," the show unfolds like a traditional play for longer stretches -- the musical numbers are fewer (11 total, compared to "Spring Awakening's" 20 tunes) and further between, with some dialogue scenes lasting more than 10 minutes. "In normal musical theater, that would be anathema," Sheik says. "I was initially a little bit concerned about that. And the music is from a totally different reality from what's happening on stage."

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